26 September, 2006

Anglo-Saxon medicine

During my MA year at York, I took a History of the Body class with one Mark Jenner, an early modernist boffin with a sharp mind but no group-teaching ability. (An academic, in other words.) He had singularly failed to get discussion going all semester, until on the last day he posited the question, Can we say that mediaeval people really were possessed by demons? In other words, is it possible that demonic possession is in fact a better model than, say, epilepsy, for what these people were experiencing? This proposition, rather predictably, got my goat, and we spent the rest of the seminar arguing about it. I objected on Popperian grounds to this misty-eyed cultural relativism—it all seemed like a rather sappy sophism to me.

Hence, I rather enjoyed this article—Barbara Brennessel, Michael Drout and Robyn Gravel, 'A reassessment of the efficacy of Anglo-Saxon medicine', Anglo-Saxon England 34. They discuss the effectiveness of mediaeval potions against the staphylococcus which causes eye-styes—in this case, cropleac and garleac (taken to be some combination of onion, garlic and leek), oxgall, wine and brass.
M. L. Cameron began publishing a set of articles on Anglo-Saxon medicine, culminating in his 1993 book on the subject, which argued that Anglo-Saxon medical texts, in particular Bald’s Leechbook, were careful compilations of Latin sources incorporating the medical knowledge of Greek, Roman, North African and Byzantine culture. . . he also argued that there was significant rational basis for a variety of Old English remedies: 'Did ancient and medieval physicians use ingredients and methods which were likely to have had beneficial effects on the patients whose ailments they treated? . . . Yes, and their prescriptions were about as good as anything prescribed before the mid-twentieth century.'
We compounded the [Anglo-Saxon] remedies and tested them in vitro against common disease-causing bacteria. Unfortunately for our hypothesis, Cameron’s argument and the Anglo-Saxon patients who were treated with these compounds, the remedies that we tested are not biologically effective against the infectious agents they are intended to combat. In fact, some of the Anglo-Saxon recipes take biologically efficacious ingredients and process them into ineffective mixtures.
Sorry, loves, but those mediaevals really were pretty backward.


SFH said...

You might be interested to know that a very similar type of apologetic also exists amongst many ultra-Orthodox Jews who insist that the words of the Talmud are eternally viable. If the Talmud suggests a particular remedy then that remedy (despite having been concocted no later than the 8th century!) must be effective today. This would also go for the medical writings of Maimonides, himself an important physician of the Middle Ages.

Furthermore, in the cases where these "cures" would prove ineffectual (or harmful!), I have even seen some go to the desperate attempt of postulating that human physiology was actually different several generations ago. Hmm. Whatever makes 'em happy, I say.

Andrew W. said...

Fascinating how these pomo revisionists were out there shilling their snake oil back in 1903! Amazing!

Conrad, I can see a way in which that kind of seminar question could be fruitful, but as your Popper reference points out, it's much better suited to a philosophy of science/history of medical concepts than a humanities seminar.

And is this what everyone find so annoying about English departments these days? That they feel they're experts in whatever field they happen upon? "Discourse is what we're about, so everything's fair game!"

(Present company excluded of course - you do appear an expert in whatever field comes up. What I would do to have my son educated like you!)

Am I wrong to be reminded of Ion here? Conrad, thanks for straying into more familiar territory!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Simon: it doesn't surprise me! If God is inviolable then his text is inviolable--it makes sense.

ALT: thanks for your kind words. I feel compelled to point out that I meant '1993' (a typo now corrected), and that in his defence, Cameron is not a pomo charlatan--he did do serious scholarly research--and it took a laboratory analysis to prove him wrong. The article is interesting because I don't think I've seen lab analysis in a humanities journal before.

Also, Jenner's class was a history of science class, so the discussion, I think, was suitable; I just found his position a mite ridiculous. Cultural relativism in ethics is one thing--but in matters of science it's just pointless. One of my classmates, agreeing with Jenner, opined 'Science is the new religion', by which he meant that science (epilepsy) is not categorically different from religion (demonic possession)--I groaned inwardly.

Ionism in the English departments? Yes, I suppose you're right.

Lastly, I hope you don't take me as expert in mediaeval medicine! I appreciate the sentiment, however, and glad this is more familiar territory--perhaps I'll try to cook up something on Machaut for you sometime...

Pretzel Bender said...

Cool research though. It certainly makes me think it would be fun to do something similar with the folk remedies described in Sahagun's Florentine Codex. Actually at least one of them, bitumen or tar for skin ailments is used today (it's a common ingredient in dandruff shampoos and psoriasis treatments). I bet Hernando Ruiz de Alarcon's Treatise on the Heathen Superstitions: That Today Live Among the Indians Native to This New Spain, 1629 has some things worth checking out in that regard too. Hmm...or worth BLOGGING about.

Andrew W. said...

Conrad, my pomo quip was firmly on the side of irony - my apologies for creasing your fine post.

"...he meant that science (epilepsy) is not categorically different from religion (demonic possession)--I groaned inwardly."

I would have too - this confusion about what is and isn't "real" is the source of far too much confusion.

Trying to figure out how demonic possession was treated medically back in the day, and how the diagnosis affected how treatment, is fascinating stuff, but saying they're the same thing is incoherent.

And please do post on Machaut. I keep meaning to explain the title, but I'd be glad if you beat me to it!

Conrad H. Roth said...

> Conrad, my pomo quip was firmly on the side of irony - my apologies for creasing your fine post.

'Creasing'? No, I don't mind, I was just afraid I hadn't expressed the situation clearly enough.

Andrew W. said...

I'm afraid I've got a bad case of the mediocre puns - irony-creasing.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Oh. Well, we all need to let off steam at one time or another.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Dear Lady Pretzel: we look forward to reading about Sahagun and Ruiz de Alarcon at Cake and Empire. Do enlighten us!

Andrew W. said...

Conrad, I never meant to press you into this kind of discussion.

Conrad H. Roth said...

That's alright, I think I've got a handle on it.

Andrew W. said...

Surely you must be board by now.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Yes... completely burned out.